TV Cream

The Wednesday Play

Way Off Beat

A fine comedy of class and ambition from the Mary Whitehouse-baiting David ‘Swizzlewick‘ Turner, set in the suburban ‘scampi belt’ of an anonymous Midlands town (in ‘Urbshire’). Well-to-do self-made owner of a chain of hairdressers’ (it says ‘coiffeur’ on his card) Arthur Bradshaw (Sydney ‘Blaustein in The Cellar and the Almond Tree‘ Tafler) dotes on his quiet, vaguely morose daughter Linda (Helen ‘Jumbo Spencer‘ Fraser) as she makes her faltering way through the highly competitive world of amateur ballroom dancing. After she finishes a novice class competition in third place (and receives a microscopic trophy for her trouble) Arthur decides to help her progress along by wooing Norman, male partner of the winning pair, into partnering her daughter in the ‘pre-champ’ section. Norman, a working class foundry worker living in council estate penury with his mother (June Brown) and sarky, technical college-bound younger brother Colin, is awestruck by the Jag-owning Arthur and his offers of much-needed financial assistance, and willingly agrees.

Arthur’s wife Betty (Brenda ‘A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts‘ Bruce) takes a while to be convinced, until Arthur reveals his grand plan of ballroom star Linda lending her name to a continental-style nightclub (“A the-danson in the early evening, followed by Steak Diane or Chicken Maryland while they’re watching the floor show […] everything very continental and in the highest of taste.”) and she’s taken with the idea that “the Bradshaws will have the sort-of stranglehold on culture in these parts”. Linda’s reticence, however, gives rise to awkward scenes when she and Norman first meet, but an enrolment with ebullient dance tutor Vicky Rayburn (Stephanie ‘To See How Far it is‘ Bidmead) helps break the ice – too well, in fact, as when Norman confides his misgivings about the partnership to Vicky, and she gives her summation of the girl – “When they don’t have to battle for a living, all they can do is follow instructions, and wait […] can’t you see it written on her face, ‘waiting for something’?” – the resultant ‘get to know’ session turns into a full-blown romance.

For Arthur, who’d planned on ditching Norman as soon as a more impressive partner came along, and who rather fancied Linda pairing off with the hideous but well-moneyed Piers, this is a step too far, and in breach of their working arrangement. More heinously, it is an affront to the class barrier he’s spent his career building up (“Bottom rung and top drawer won’t wash. Never have done and never will.”) Norman, meanwhile, is busy being alienated from the scheme by Colin (“Go to Ascot, why don’t you, or watch them arrive for a royal garden party. Stand behind the railings and bust yourself with laughing at ’em […] ‘cos it’s them what you’re imitating.”) In the final scene at the novice graduation comp, the pair heroically desert Arthur, shedding their ballroom finery and riding into the night in Norman’s motorcycle combination.

Birmingham schoolteacher David Turner comes up with a fine slice of observational, character-based comedy within what’s more or less a straightforward sitcom (or Comedy Playhouse) plot. Tafler’s Arthur is of course the standout creation – commanding a fine lower-middle-class vocabulary of fruity verbosity (“To economise on breath, mother, I think I shall wait till Linda has joined us before I divulge…”) which, though a hackneyed trope by today’s standards, was at the time a fresh and pertinent observation on the self-conscious artifice of the then still-emergent nouveau riche. (Although they are heading for trouble – Betty cuts swathes of tulle from Linda’s dress, griping “I said to Connie, a hundred yards of tulle might have been au fait two or three years ago when we never had it so good, but it’s Mr Wilson in charge now or haven’t they heard of him?”) It is the perceived gulf between the working and newly-aspirant lower middle class that gets Turner’s goat here, and while ballroom dancing per se is not mocked – Vicky Rayburn, though a nice comic turn, is smart and respectable throughout – the airs and graces that so often come along with the discipline are held up as the nefarious traits they are, personified in Arthur’s shameless social oiling, and the smarmy and eminently corruptible adjudicator he bribes, Antonio Laveline (Jeremy Hanley).

Talk of Steak Diane and boites de nuit conjures up thoughts of Abigail’s Party a good eleven years down the line, but Turner lays on a more sympathetic ear to the denizens of the aspirant classes, understanding the origins of their need to ‘get on’ while ably condemning their follies, and Arthur is never reduced to the impenetrable caricature Alison Steadman’s Beverley becomes. Turner’s work has much more in common with the plays Jack Rosenthal would turn in during the late ’70s  – finely-wrought natural dialogue combined with a compassionate grasp of character and community. Sadly his was a wayward talent, and alcoholism, a need to take piece work (writing for The Archers and various adapted serials) and an ill-advised trek into what he described as ‘Jonsonian’ comedy with the briefly notorious but not very good Swizzlewick meant very few of his original plays were seen on television after this. Carl Davis scored the music for this production.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Bruce

    November 29, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Why do your entries for ‘The Wednesday Play’ stop at 1966? I was looking forward to reading your descriptions of all the plays in this series up to 1970.

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